Memphis has a diverse and enduring dance community, and some of the cities brightest exports and most exciting regional innovations are have their roots in a full-on collision of classical dance, music, and street cultures.
In recent weeks dance fans have seen classical companies like Ballet Memphis and New Ballet Ensemble taking their place on larger stages.
New Ballet Ensemble students ages recently performed with the Memphis Symphony at the Cannon Center and 13-year-old TJ Benson joined the world renown cellest Yo-Yo Ma for the encore.
Yo-Yo Ma has previously performed with NBE alum Li'l Buck.
An introductory film suggests that the plan for these three new ballets was to reflect three zones through which the river passes: one ballet (Steven McMahon’s “Confluence”) on the central area around Memphis, one on the Delta and New Orleans (Julia Adam’s “Second Line”), and another on — what? This third ballet (Matthew Neenan’s “Party of the Year”) proved the least obviously river-connected: its setting was a party in Los Angeles. This didn’t make it a disappointment, however. Instead, it was both the evening’s biggest hit and one of the most beguiling new American ballets of our day.
Bug is hardcore pulp and a special treat for anybody who ever stayed up late to hear the guests on Art Bell’s syndicated Coast-to-Coast radio show weave every conspiracy that ever existed about shadow governments and aliens into a crazy fabric of alternative space time. It’s a grotesque love story about an intermittently stable woman with no self worth and a charismatic but dangerously paranoid Gulf war veteran who may be but probably isn’t the parasite-infested end-result of a mad Government experiment gone South. These characters are hard cases: intelligent but isolated, sick, ignorant, deep into their booze and hopeless from lights up.
“I’m not an axe murderer,” Peter (John Dylan Atkins) says early on telegraphing to everybody who’s ever picked up a trashy novel that he’s another kind of murderer. Or he soon will be.
Letts revels in druggy, voyeuristic excess and gore hounds and Halloween thrill seekers with the patience to make it to the end of this talky psychodrama will get their share of the ultra-violence.
As over the top as it may be Bug took on special resonance when I sat down to the news after last Sunday’s matinee performance and read about the mass shooting in Wisconsin. In addition to all the rest Letts' play is also a domestic nightmare. Tracy Hansom plays Agnes, a dive cocktail waitress whose sadistic ex’s probably been putting the fear in her since he got out of prison after a two-year stretch, and he puts it in her for sure when he shows up horny and throwing fists. The Wisconsin shooter also had a history of domestic abuse. He’d been stalking his estranged wife too, slashing her tires tires and threatening to douse her with gasoline and set her world on fire.
Not to spoil things too much but Bug ends in a great, fully naked, gasoline-accelerated conflagration that, for being accomplished with nothing but light, skin and sound, burns hotter than anything that happens on stage in Theatre Memphis’s lavish take on Christopher Hampton’s Dangerous
There’s a lot right about Jerry Chipman’s take on Liaisons, a frequently revisited story of hateful libertines crushing people’s souls because they can. Christopher McCollum’s unit set — a faintly abstracted art salon is — is brilliantly illuminated by Jeremy Allen Fisher. Andre Bruce Ward’s opulent 18th-Century gowns are stunning and lovers of over-the-top costume drama will not be disappointed. When you look past the scenic virtuosity things get dicier.
I liked Liaisons’ brisk pace and crisp, almost but not quite presentational style. The well-spoken words gave the play an unexpected storytelling vibe that makes the twisted tale of sexual terrorism easy to follow. But why?
Valmont, a wealthy 18th-Century douchebag is bored to tears with ordinary sexual beastliness and wants to get it on with Mme de Tourvelle, a supposedly virtuous hysteric. To turn his ticket she has to give herself to him physically while clinging tighter than ever to the trivial moral pillars that define her own annoying vanities. The dashing jerkwad accomplishes this while playing multidimensional hate-sex chess with the Marquise de Merteuil who wants him to want her but who also wants to win.
Claire Hayner is the strong, severely beautiful Marquise I’d imagined she might be, owning the stage like some evil Disney-inspired dominatrix. It’s a harsh, jarring performance that never seems in synch with John Moore’s blithely detached Valmont
Hayner tapps into Liaisons false-feminist anger and makes a strong case that douchey bros who end badly get what they deserve. Unless, of course they ruin her plans in the process. She’s also an original Mean Girl objectifying and using other women for sport.
Ending Liaisons with some hint that the French Reign of terror is around the corner isn’t unusual, but it almost always feels unearned. Theatre Memphis’ production ends, not with the shadow of the guillotine, but with the sound of a falling blade. Historically it makes sense but for the most part the play unfolds in a bubble, acknowledging dire poverty, but never plunging too deeply into the political rivalries that made the guillotine sing.
The driving modern sound design was intrusive, setting a tone and tempo the actors can’t seem to match. It’s still something they might all aspire to.
When it comes to truly dangerous encounters with men Bug's Tracy Hansom takes home the prize. Greg Boller does his best work yet as Goss, Agnes’ hyper-macho thug husband who doesn’t give a damn about consensual. And the more she falls for Peter and adopts his paranoid vision the more she tears at her skin to get the parasites out.
Gene Elliot’s production is action-packed and his sound design, which consists mostly of Tejano music and helicopters, is managed in such a way that it seems to project the characters disorientation and drugged up paranoia onto the audience.
Bug is overlong and won’t be everybody’s bucket of guts. It’s also one heckuva showcase for character actors who aren’t afraid to get down and dirty. Both Hansom and Atkins spend quite a bit of time naked. While both are attractive people neither have supermodel bodies, adding to the grit, and making a pair of already fearless performances that much more impressive.
Kell Christie takes on the role of R.C., a tough, coke-snorting lesbian who tries to help Agnes, and the always interesting Jim Palmer is superb in his walk on role as Dr. Sweet, a psychiatrist who may or may not confirm all of Peter’s buggy suspicions.
The Hattiloo Theatre is taking over the main stage at the Germantown Performing Arts Center for one day to revive Mahalia, a popular musical about the life and career of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
Here's a sneak peek:
Mahalia is at GPAC on Saturday, October 27. 3:30 and 7:30 p.m.
If someone wanted to create a new kind of retro parody that parodies older retro parodies of vintage sci-fi, Zombies From the Beyond might make a nice template.
This show feels less like underground theater fun than product modeled after underground theater fun, and even a director as inventive as Ann Marie Hall couldn't do much with it.
More choreography might have helped to mask the absence of a script.
It sure was fun to look at though.
Last week was a great week.
Friday, I kicked things off with a visit to the Global Hamlets Symposium, which, given the 20-minute time limit imposed on the assembled Shakespeare experts, felt like I’d stumbled across a live Ted Talk channel created exclusively for theatre nerds with a taste for history and international affairs. Who knew that watching serious Shakespeareans doing scholarship-lite could be such a great way to spend a beautiful fall afternoon?
Well, I guess I did.
The speakers — Nick Hutchison (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), Alexander Huang (George Washington University), Margaret Litvin (Boston University), and David Schalkwyk (Folger Shakespeare Library) — weren’t just informative, they were funny, playful, and combative as they considered the role Shakespeare's Melancholy Dane has played in China, South Africa, and the Middle East.
A drinking song
Opera Memphis’s General Director Ned Canty was also at the conference with baritone Joel Herold who sang the ironic drinking song from Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet.
It's always fun to encounter Canty in different contexts and observe his campaign to change Opera’s image. He recently slipped me a handful of stickers he’d made which took Shepard Fairey’s famous image of Andre the Giant and changed the word “Obey” to “Opera.” It doesn’t say “Opera Memphis” anywhere. There’s no website or season ticket offer. Just “Opera.”
Canty said he doesn’t approve of sticker vandalism. But (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) if Obey/Opera stickers start showing up places, what’s a guy to do?
I was surprised that nobody involved in the Hamlet symposium followed me to Becky Shaw at the U of M. It’s a savage comedy that borrows heavily from the original Man in Black. I was more surprised at how much of Shakespeare I saw in Katori Hall’s Hurt Village at the Hattiloo, and have to wonder if I wasn’t fully under the influence of a great symposium. But no, intended or not all the Gorky and the Shakespeare is all there packed into the most Memphis-centric play you're likely to see any time soon.
In my truncated review I compare Hurt Village to Hamlet, but that’s not right. Or it’s not enough, rather. Memphis is a place where people spin rhyming soliloquies when they walk down the street by themselves. But Hurt Village is more like a history play. It's Richard III and Romeo and Juliet but with almost no emphasis on the lovers who won't survive long enough to kill themselves.
At one of Rhodes previous Shakespeare symposiums a scholar described Romeo’s journey from ineloquence to mastery of the sonnet. That’s was the first thing that entered my mind when Hall’s unlikely Romeo character turned out to be a stutterer. One gets the impression that his condition might have improved had a first kiss not also turned out to be a last kiss.
One regret: I missed Project: Motion’s opening weekend of Mixology. Hopefully I'll make it by before Sunday's closing.
This is another good week for seeing shows.
Think about Elvis and the Blues and how these dirty American sounds took root from Singapore to Liverpool. Then in 1964 it all came back to the states in the form of a British Invasion that profoundly changed our culture and the way the world hears and consumes music. That's a fairly recent bit of history but it might help to put us in a frame of mind to think about the impact of Shakespeare's plays being performed on East India Company ships sailing the seas of a rapidly-expanding globe.
Traveling across space, through Asia, Africa, and the Arab world, and also across generations the supreme playwright's works have been eroded, augmented, adapted, and distilled. The Global Hamlet Symposium at Rhodes College brings a body of academics, actors, and enthusiasts to the home of the Blues to consider how the world has changed Hamlet and Hamlet has changed the world.
In addition to lectures and discussions the Hamlet Symposium will also feature performances by the Tennessee Shakespeare Company and Opera Memphis. In conjunction with the symposium Rhodes is screening Feng Xiaogang's The Banquet, Thursday, Oct 4, Rhodes. Xiaogang's film is a Kung Fu fantasy Hamlet in the vein of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.